America’s response to the coronavirus has exposed many, many systemic shortcomings — the vulnerability of tipped workers, the lack of standardized paid sick leave, and the tenuous capacity of the health care system, to start — but it’s also shown our capacity for positive change. The willingness to move classes, conferences, events, work, and interviews online for the sake of public health is a great indicator of what could happen in the future. Seeing this changing day by day, I can’t help but think: What about all the times the same organizations said no to these accommodations? And what happens to these new initiatives after the coronavirus becomes less of an imminent threat? Maybe this experience means all these organizations will see the benefits of remote work. Maybe a silver lining to COVID-19 is increased flexibility in these policies across the board. Having that option would be a boon to many in the disability community — and would have massive benefits beyond the disability community. But it’s hard to be hopeful.
One of the first things I learned when I started reading about the disability community was the spoon theory. Created by Christine Miserandino, the idea goes like this: Think about the energy you have every day represented in the form of spoons. Healthy, able-bodied people tend to have an unlimited number of spoons. Every action you take consumes one spoon, but because you are healthy and able-bodied, with unlimited spoons, it’s no big deal. You might go running in the morning, and then commute to work while reading the paper; you might grab lunch with a friend, and then go on a date; you might end the night at home, watching Netflix after picking up some ice cream from the bodega.
On the other hand, if you have a disability or a chronic illness, you have a limited number of spoons every day. Every action you take consumes one spoon, and after each step, you’re left to consider what you can do with the spoons you have left. Sometimes you finish getting ready for your day and you’ve already used half your spoons, so you have to be strategic about where the rest go. You might be able to borrow spoons from the next day, or save spoons — similar to how I used to hoard medication — but it means you borrow against yourself, and that is a debt you will always have to pay.
It can’t be solely the task of someone with a limited supply of spoons to fight for accommodations that have widespread benefit, especially when there are people with unlimited spoons sitting right next to them. During this coronavirus outbreak, healthy, able-bodied people have been important allies to more vulnerable populations and stood alongside members of these communities. Now that we’ve seen the kind of accommodations that are possible, we should work to formalize these into permanent policies. Allowing more flexible and standardized teleconferencing policies across the board is not just helpful for the disability community: It can be helpful for people who are immunosuppressed; for new parents; for the environment; for people who can’t afford the plane ticket; for people who are caretakers; for people with social anxiety — the list goes on.